The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

What we know — and still want to know — about Trump’s company

President Trump with daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump in June.
President Trump with daughter and White House adviser Ivanka Trump in June. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)

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On Sunday, the New York Times revealed that it had obtained President Trump’s tax returns for much of the past 20 years — a trove of never-before-seen financial data from inside the president’s private business.

Trump had refused to release those returns himself, unlike all other recent presidents. And he had gone to the Supreme Court to stop Congress and the Manhattan district attorney from obtaining them.

The Times report shows one reason Trump might have wanted to keep the returns secret. It said Trump had paid just $750 in federal income taxes in 2016 and again in 2017 — and no federal income taxes at all in many previous years. The reason: Trump’s businesses routinely reported losing more money than they made, a fact that saved Trump on his taxes but belied the gold-plated-CEO image he presented to the public.

Since 2016, President Trump has cited an ongoing IRS audit as the primary reason that he will not release his tax returns. (Video: Monica Akhtar/The Washington Post, Photo: Salwan Georges/The Washington Post)

Trump called the Times report “fake news” but did not dispute any specific element of it. The Trump Organization, which Trump still owns, said that Trump has paid millions in “personal taxes” — a category that could also include other taxes, such as Social Security and Medicare taxes.

The Washington Post has been digging into Trump’s finances for the past five years. Here’s what we learned from the Times report — and some important questions we still can’t answer.

What we know now

1. Is Trump’s business doing well?

No. And its fortunes could get worse.

The Times report says that many of Trump’s keystone properties — including his Doral resort in Florida, his golf resorts in Europe and his hotel in Washington — have lost tens of millions of dollars in recent years. We knew that those properties were underperforming but did not know the depth of their losses. (The Times’s revelation that Doral has lost more than $162 million raises new questions about Trump’s failed effort to award the Group of Seven summit to that resort last year).

In recent years, the Times reported, these losses had a silver lining: By counterbalancing income from Trump’s moneymaking properties, they helped reduce Trump’s tax bills to $750, or to zero.

But now, the Times reported, bigger problems are looming. Trump owes $421 million in loans and other debts, many of them attached to money-losing properties (whose fortunes have only gotten worse this year as the coronavirus pandemic has hammered Trump properties along with the rest of the travel business). In many cases, those loans will come due in the next few years, and Trump has guaranteed them personally. If Trump wins reelection, that could mean many of his properties will face severe financial pressure during his second term.

2. Was Trump really under audit for years and years as he claimed?

Yes, apparently.

The reason, according to the Times, was an enormous $72.9 million tax refund that Trump claimed in 2010. Since then, the Times reported, the IRS has been trying to determine whether Trump actually deserved that refund, which was based on his claims of losses after the 2008 financial crisis.

The Times said that the fight over this refund has gone to a special congressional committee, the Joint Committee on Taxation, which is required to weigh in on all refunds greater than $2 million to individuals. Trump’s case is still pending, and he could have to repay more than $100 million if he loses.

Trump has repeatedly cited an IRS audit as a reason he cannot release his tax returns. But in the past, the IRS has said taxpayers are free to release their tax returns, even if they are under audit.

3. Has Trump’s company taken money from people who want to influence U.S. policy?

We already knew the answer was yes. Since Trump was elected, his luxury properties have hosted an array of customers who want favorable treatment from the government: foreign governments, right-wing groups, lobbying firms and executives from T-Mobile — who spent $195,000 at Trump’s D.C. hotel after they announced a merger needing government approval, The Post first reported. The Post found T-Mobile’s chief executive in the lobby of the Trump hotel. He said he chose the hotel because it was comfortable and close to his meetings at the Justice Department.

But the Times report provides new details, on previously unknown payments. It said a roofing manufacturer spent $1.5 million at Doral, while the roofing industry was lobbying for looser regulations. And a conservative Christian group, the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association, spent nearly $400,000 at Trump’s D.C. hotel for a banquet.

The Billy Graham group said it was hosting a conference at Washington’s Mayflower Hotel but used Trump’s hotel for the closing banquet because the Mayflower did not have enough space. “President Trump’s commitment to uphold religous liberty was well documented before May 2017, so we don’t believe the banquet’s venue influenced this issue,” spokesman Mark Barber said.

The roofing company declined comment.

Doral and Trump’s D.C. hotel still lost money. But the losses at those properties show how vulnerable Trump could be to conflicts of interest — or at least the appearance of conflicts — if his properties are struggling and in need of big-spending customers.

What we still don't know

1. Will Trump’s tax practices increase the legal trouble he is already facing?

The president is already facing at least two state-level investigations of his business. New York Attorney General Letitia James (D) is investigating whether the Trump Organization misled potential lenders and tax authorities by exaggerating the value of its properties. Cyrus R. Vance Jr. (D), the Manhattan district attorney, is conducting a separate investigation — one that began with questions about payoffs to women just before the 2016 election and now seems to have expanded into a broader look at the company’s finances.

The Times report raises new questions about Trump’s tax practices.

It notes that Trump appeared to pay his own family members as “consultants” on big deals and then deduct those consulting fees as business expenses on his taxes. The Times said the IRS has sometimes sought civil penalties from companies that use bogus consulting arrangements to avoid paying taxes. But the Times said it has seen no indication that the IRS has questioned Trump’s use of this practice.

2. How much worse are the Trump Organization’s finances now, because of the pandemic?

Earlier this year, the pandemic and related shutdown measures caused 17 of Trump’s golf resorts and hotels to shut down temporarily and triggered layoffs of more than 1,500 employees. Trump’s hotel in Vancouver, B.C. — the newest addition to the president’s small hotel chain — remains shuttered. The company that owns the hotel building declared bankruptcy in late August, blaming the pandemic.

The Times report does not include tax data for 2020, of course, because those tax returns will not be filed until next year. But it seems likely that the financial pressures that were already evident at properties such as Doral and the Trump hotel in Washington — with losses mounting and debts coming due — have only worsened this year.

3. As Trump’s companies struggled, how much money did they get from U.S. taxpayers?

Trump’s election brought his company one new, deep-pocketed customer: the U.S. government. Trump has traveled to his own properties more than 270 times, bringing along aides and Secret Service agents whose jobs require them to stay at the president’s side. Then Trump’s company has charged them for their rooms.

How much have taxpayers paid Trump’s company? Neither the company or the U.S. government will say. But The Post has compiled its own list of payments, using public-records requests and a lawsuit to find one receipt a time.

So far, we’ve found at least $1.1 million in such payments — including room rentals at Trump’s Mar-a-Lago property in Florida, where the president’s company charged taxpayers $650 per night. The actual number is likely to be higher, though, since major agencies such as the State and Defense departments have still not yet released years of data on their payments to Trump’s businesses.